How young are they?
• The Vols are so young, UT's coaching staff will make naps between two-a-day practices mandatory.
• The Vols are so young, they may replace Gatorade with KoolAid during games and practices.
• The Vols are so young, in order not to tax attention spans, the chalkboard will be replaced by "action figures" and play books will be illustrated by Sponge Bob Square Pants' cartoonist.
• The Vols are so young, pre-game meals will be replaced by Happy Meals, and the team banquet will be held under the golden arches.
• The Vols are so young, the most often asked question on road trips will be: Are we there yet?
Clearly, the situation has been overstated for comic effect — or is it comic relief? — but it's not a laughing matter for a rebuilt coaching staff, trying to restore the status quo in the aftermath of UT's first losing season since 1988.
It should also be pointed out that UT redshirted most of its No. 1 rated Class of 2005, which means they have a year in the program and are better prepared to make a contribution than most true freshmen would. The Vols also have several players with prep school and junior college experience. Still there are unique challenges for the Vols staff when 43 of the Vols 85 scholarship players on the roster have never played a single snap in a Division I contest, while another 11 Tennessee players have a year or less of playing experience.
Youth is typically associated with mistakes and the Vols' margin for error has been steadily declining in recent years as competition has grown stiffer. However UT has also had veteran squads that made freshmen mistakes so experience doesn't always have its advantages.
The youth movement presents an interesting set of dynamics that may or not be good for Tennessee. As you recall, last season UT's offensive and defensive players suffered the same fate although the defense deserved much better in light of its solid play for most of the year without support from teammates on the offense. That essentially divided the team in half
Even under the best of circumstances team unity can be a fragile state to maintain, and last season was far from the best of conditions at UT. This season will see the team evenly divided between offense and defense as well as between those Vols who have played SEC football vs. those that haven't.
That creates a potentially volatile scenario in which veterans shellshocked and lacking confidence following a 5-6 campaign are asked to lead a large group of redshirt and true freshmen. If there is again a disparity in the efficiency of the offense and defense that will simply compound the problems. The Vols could be particularly vulnerable because the schedule is once again front loaded with daunting competition, which means they will have no opportunity to build confidence against lesser foes before playing the most critical games of the campaign.
On the plus side, both the veterans and rookies have a lot of motivation after going through one of the longest offseason's in school history. It's a team's nature to close ranks when surrounded by doubters, critics, nay sayers or even the profoundly disappointed.
The infusion of youth will bring renewed energy and hope to the team. It will also invigorate competition for positions, bringing out the best in players on both sides of the ball. The changes on the coaching staff should also boost confidence along with adjustments toward strategies designed to better take advantage of the Vols strengths.
The shock of seeing a preseason consensus top five team, and perennial national power, turn into an unranked 5-6 team in the course of 90 days was a jolt to the psyche of Tennessee football faithful. It blunted the sense of entitlement and altered that aura of expectation that has lingered about UT supporters since the national title run of 1998. In short: it might just have been the wake-up call needed in Big Orange Country, since players often mirror the emotions of their fan base.
Most significant to Tennessee's chances for a return to gridiron glory is the fact there is simply a ton of untapped talent on the squad that, if maximized, could turn the Vols into instant contenders. Ultimately, there's nothing that helps confidence quite so much as talent.
Even if it's young talent.